On the morning of Tuesday, April 20, 2010, when 12-year-old Erik Rogg left for school, his mother Judy says he was his normal, “very confident and happy” self. When she saw him later that afternoon, however, he was dead, strangulated by his Boy Scout rope that was intricately tied to a pull-up bar. Even more tragically, Erik’s death was self-inflicted: He was a victim of the dangerous “choking game,” in which kids suffocate themselves and others using various techniques, including belts, ropes or their hands.
According to Judy, Erik learned the game from friends at school on Monday, April 19—just the day before—and on Tuesday, he tried it alone. Based on the fact that Erik was found in the middle of their apartment (not hiding in his bedroom), and he had incomplete homework materials spread out on a table, she believes that he was simply attempting to clear his head from his studies, unaware of the severity of his actions. Sadly, this naivety among adolescents who engage in dangerous behaviors like the choking game is all too common, and it underscores a gross need for parents to be involved and aware of what their kids are doing “just for fun.”
“Tween-to-teens perceive risk very differently from adults,” says Julie Smith, MHS, an adolescent and family counselor. “Adolescents are drawn to risk—the greater the risk, the bigger the rewards, including social standing and peer acceptance.” So what are some of these risky behaviors? Aside from the choking game, there’s the “cinnamon challenge,” which involves kids swallowing a teaspoon of cinnamon and refraining from any water for at least 60 seconds as a way to test strength and endurance. There’s vodka eyeballing, in which kids pour shots of vodka into their eyes to get a quick buzz without the smell of alcohol (vodka-soaked tampons are a feminine alternative), and there has been a rise in viral “cutting parties,” or groups of kids who gather online so that everyone can cut—or inflict self-harm in some other way—within the comfort and security of like-minded others.
It’s scary stuff, for sure, but in addition to activities that pose the risk of bodily harm or death, there are also dangerous behaviors that may have serious legal implications. Sexting, says licensed professional counselor Dr. Jennifer Weeks, Ph.D., can have devastating effects on the self-esteem of girls, in addition to causing significant legal consequences.
Girls involved in sexting typically send nude or partially nude photos of themselves to boys they’re in relationships with (or with whom they’d like to be). Ironically, though, a recent study from Drexel University, reports that girls who engage in this behavior are viewed negatively by the boys whose attention they’re trying to capture. “The girls felt much more pressure to send sexually explicit messages to partners; however, the boys in the study viewed the girls who did that as ‘crazy,’ ‘insecure,’ ‘attention-seeking sluts with poor judgment,’” says Weeks. “The self-esteem complications are harsher for girls than boys.”
The legal implications are harsh as well. “The studies differ on whether knowing that the behavior is illegal would have any effect on teens’ participation,” Weeks says. “In most states, a teen can be charged with production of child pornography, possession of child pornography, distribution of child pornography, etc. And depending on the state, this can be punished with a felony charge requiring sex offender registration.”
But regardless of the activity, whether a kid is trying prove his machismo to a bunch of preteens, or a girl is desperately trying to get the hottest guy at school to ask her out, the remedy is the same: Parents must be vigilant about talking to their kids about dangerous behavior before it happens.
“There is a fear among parents that if they start the conversation, it means their child will participate, as in, ‘If I talk to my child about sex, it means they will have sex,’” says Smith. “This myth, though, is opening the space for kids to figure it out on their own.” It’s also unwarranted. “I have talked to countless tweens and teens who have said that the choice of doing or not doing something has nothing to do with awareness and everything to do with boredom, understanding the dangers—or not—and the need for peer acceptance,” she adds. “A higher percentage of kids who had talked with their parents and understood the dangers were less likely to participate. Yes, there are still those who will join in; however, the number is far fewer than if the conversation was never started.”
Smith encourages parents to keep the discussion short and general in nature and to expect for it to be an ongoing dialogue, not a one-time occurrence. “Parents must keep in mind that this is a talk, not a lecture or a scream-fest,” she says. “Those situations ooze judgment and mistrust, which is a surefire way to cause your child to rebel or tune you out.” Additionally, says Smith, parents need to be prepared to embrace their child in the event that he does, in fact, engage in harmful behavior. “There will always be some kids that, even with the parents’ best efforts and infinite love, will make dangerous and risky choices. If or when this does happen, suspend judgment, toss out phrases that label, like ‘bad kid,’ and just let your child know you love him.”
Perhaps, though, education is the most effective means of preventing dangerous behavior. Judy Rogg says that she engaged in regular talks with her son, Erik, but she also admits to being completely unaware of the choking game, and thus unable to communicate its risks. “I told Erik about everything I knew about, but I never had any idea that this even existed,” she says. “I want every parent to know and understand that this deadly activity exists, and that it’s okay to talk about these things with their kids. In fact, it’s important to learn how to talk with their teenagers so they listen.”
Since Erik’s death, Judy has launched Erik’s Cause, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating parents about the choking game and equipping them to have the all-important conversations with their kids. The organization has also been piloted in the Santa Monica school district to alert kids about the dangers of such risky behavior and, hopefully, prevent another child from meeting a fate similar to Erik’s.
“As one of Erik’s best friends said, ‘Even smart, strong kids can make dumb choices with deadly consequences,’” says Judy. “Our goal is to help them become aware, along with their parents.”